Syria vows to help antipolio effort

Cases confirmed; fears of outbreak go beyond border

DAMASCUS — Syria said Monday it will work with international organizations to ensure that all children in the country, even those in rebel-held areas, will be vaccinated against polio following an outbreak of the crippling and highly communicable disease.

The World Health Organization last week confirmed 10 cases of polio among babies and toddlers in northeastern Syria.

The UN health agency warned that the outbreak — the first in 14 years in the country — risks spreading among an estimated half-million Syrian children who haven’t been immunized because of the civil war.


‘‘We intend to vaccinate each Syrian child regardless of the area they are present in, whether it is a hotspot or a place where the Syrian Arab Army is present,’’ deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad said. ‘‘We promise that we will give opportunity to humanitarian organizations to reach every Syrian child.’’

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He did not specify when the immunization campaign would begin, or how those administering the vaccinations would reach rebel-held areas.

Syria said last month that it had launched a vaccination campaign, while UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake said his organization and WHO planned to immunize 2.4 million children across Syria. Access to all areas of the country, however, remains a problem.

Aid groups have called for cease-fires to allow immunization campaigns to reach zones affected by fighting.

The need to address the polio threat is urgent, health officials say. The virus usually infects children in unsanitary conditions through consuming food or drink contaminated with feces. It attacks the nerves and can kill or paralyze, spreading widely and unnoticed before it starts crippling children.


With huge numbers of Syrians still fleeing the violence to seek safety abroad, the risk of an outbreak in countries that have absorbed the bulk of refugees — Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey — is high.

In a separate development Monday, Iran’s semiofficial Mehr news agency said a commander in the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard had been killed in Syria. It said Mohammad Jamali was killed by ‘‘terrorists’’ a few days ago but did not provide details. It said his funeral will be held in Kerman in southeastern Iran on Tuesday.

Iran has provided financial and military support for its longtime Damascus ally.

Last year, the chief commander of the Revolutionary Guard, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, said the unit had high-level advisers in Syria but denied it has fighters there. More recently, however, analysts say that Iranian troops and commanders have taken on a more direct role in the conflict.

Also Monday, Mekdad, Syria’s deputy foreign minister, defended the government against allegations that its forces were blockading rebel-held areas. He said there had been attempts to extend food and supplies to civilians in certain districts and towns under rebel control. He also noted rebels were blockading towns considered loyal to the government.